A Little Matter of My Ancestral Heart

My great grandmother sat on top of the piano.   Her piercing ice-blue eyes mesmerized and hypnotized me, and no matter where I stood in my grandmother’s farmhouse parlor, those eyes in that oil painting saw me.  Sitting at the piano bench beside my grandmother as she practiced her hymns for Sunday church, I was in-tranced by the angelic face above me, Clara Olinda Osborne King, watching over us while I sang in ardor as my grandmother played “Bringing in the Sheaves.” My grandmother, who I affectionately called mam-maw, told me many times, when I was as young as six years old, that I reminded her of her own mama, that woman sitting on top of the piano.  

Clara Olinda Osborne King was born October 15, 1885, in Grayson County, Kentucky.  She was an educated woman and I have her Common Schools Diploma to prove it. The diploma confirms that she had completed the prescribed course of studies in Spelling, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, English Grammar, English Composition, Geography, History of the United States, History of Kentucky, Physiology & Hygiene, Elements of Civil Government, and she had successfully passed the test endorsed by the Kentucky State Board of Examiners. In rural America, where farming was the common way of life, women were primed to be the support of the farmer husband and to do the manual work required on the farm. Completing an education before marriage was often not accomplished. Clara, though, after completing her studies, somehow made her way to Oldham County, Kentucky, 100 miles away from her birth home of Grayson County, where she would live and teach all ages of children in the one-room school house in the rural county countryside.

The photos I have of my dear great-grandmother, Clara, testify that she was more than slightly beautiful. She was breathtaking. Clara’s own mother, my great-great grandmother, Ruth Angeline Jacobs Osborne, was also a stunning and lovely woman; a beauty, who according to family folklore, won a county fair beauty contest, and married a man ten years younger than herself; a cougar, ahead of her time.  Dear Angeline left this earth at a mere forty years young, and soon after, in that exact same year that she died, her husband, Arthur Osborne, remarried. To this day, I cannot find the grave where my great-great grandmother Angeline was laid to rest. It is a mystery.  Clara, her daughter, was only five years old when her mother, Angeline Jacobs, died.

 I imagine that it must have been a very exhilarating time for 20-year-old Clara, venturing out to a new rural county in 1905 to become the community school teacher, marking her independence and womanhood. According to my mam-maw and my aunts, their mother, Clara, was a writer and poet.  I have a poem she wrote for my mam-maw’s class picnic in Clara’s lovely handwriting, and it is my beautiful treasure.  I imagine that Clara spent her free time writing, and singing in the church choir, and that she taught children how to read, and to love and appreciate poetry and art and humanities. I think she may have fancied pretty dresses and smelled of lavender and rose. I see her washing her hair in rain water and using a rock from the creek as a pumice for her slender feet. I see her gathering wild daisies and Queen Anne’s Lace from the fields, just as I gathered flowers when I’d run the hills of my mam-maw’s Kentucky farm. Who wouldn’t love a beautiful bouquet in the sweet summers in Kentucky?  Maybe Clara even wore flowers in her hair at the church social. 

Family folklore has it that my dear great-grandmother Clara met my great-grandfather Leander King at a church picnic on a Sunday afternoon. I wonder who caught whose fancy first. Leander King was very handsome, a striking man, thin and fit, and a farmer. He was also a widower at the time of their acquaintance. It was a coincidence that his dearly departed first wife’s name was also Clara (Clara Hannah Wilhoit) and not so uncommon, Clara Hannah Wilhoit was his cousin.

I like to imagine that the courtship of Leander King and Clara Osborne was a love story fit for the Lifetime Television. I wonder if this meeting was one of sparks at first sight, or if it was a long, lovely courtship. Leander lost his first wife in 1905, the same year that Clara received her diploma and set out for the new landscape of teaching.  I have nothing but my imagination on their puritan romance, but according to established records, Leander King, age 38, and Clara Olinda Osborne, 23 years old, were married on March 4, 1908, and their first child, my mam-maw, Josie Margaret King, was born November 18, 1908.

So begins my great grandmother’s life of motherhood and farmwife life. Upon marriage, Clara had to give up her position as teacher. It was against the law for a married woman to teach children.

In July 1910, Clara gave birth to her second child, Odella. 1913 blessed Leander and Clara with their first and only living son, James, the third child. In April 1914, along came Mary Edna King, their fourth child. One year later, June 1916, Zella Lorena King is born as their fourth daughter and fifth child.

In 1918, my sweet great grandmother, Clara. gave birth to twins, Robert and Louise, who were both stillborn. 1919, Minnie Myrtle King was born as their sixth living child.  In November 1920 Leander and Clara welcomed Aline, their seventh child.  March 1923, Grace, their eighth child arrived. September 1925, Martha, eighth daughter, ninth child.  Myra, born in 1926, was the tenth living child.  In May 1930, Clara gave birth to another stillborn named John Milton King. Family stories say that Myra recalls walking into a room with her oldest sister, Josie, and seeing the dead newborn. Myra was heartbroken because she wanted a baby doll. Clara had given birth to three children stillborn and ten living children, over the span of twenty-two years.  My dear Clara, the beautiful oil painting on the piano, spent most of her adult living life with a baby in her belly.

All while bearing children, Clara was a farmer’s wife.  Some speculate that having children was a strategic move to man the farm. Perhaps that is true. Today we women know the effects of giving birth on our bodies.  I imagine that Clara suffered some negative effects, but kept silent in that puritan way in the early 1900s, as she was birthing a child almost yearly. Childbirth may have taken a toll on her heart. Clara was 54 years young when she passed on in 1940.  Her husband, 15 years older, lived 82 years, and passed on in 1952.

My mam-maw, Josie Margaret, the oldest of the King children, always had such love and adoration in her voice when she spoke of her mama, Clara. I know that books were treasures, and reading was encouraged by Clara.  My mam-maw had her mama’s books at the farmhouse.  I can still smell those wonderful readers with yellowed pages, and feel the cloth covers. My aunt Rena, Zella Lorena, born in 1916, taught me how to write a poem as she said her mama Clara taught her how to write poems.  Aunt Rena said Clara practically sang her poems when she read them aloud. Aunt Rena and I would make rhymes as we did the dishes together at her house when I visited her when I was younger than ten.  It all felt so familiar to me.

I never gave birth to a child. I’ve had children in my life who found me and needed a mother to teach them things.  I’ve taught a few children how to use their voices in writing, and I fed a few of them for well over a decade. I was particularly drawn to a family of thirteen children in my community.  I made my way into their home, and the mother of the family came to call me a guardian of a few of her children.  Nothing legal was ever done.  I just became known as their blonde mom.

I love poetry and creative writing and the performing arts.  I sometimes feel as if I’m from another time, another place other than my own body.  I often have dreams of a farm I’ve never visited. I am very comfortable sitting in the dark as the sun goes down, with only candlelight to read a book or write a few words.  Flowers speak to me as do natural fragrances of herbs, fruits and spices.

I’ve lived in a big city for half my life and yet I am still connected to the farm as if it’s just around the corner from me, as if I can step into it at any time and be totally at home. I make my suburban home a farm house with flowering gardens. I feel so at home digging in the dirt, and singing songs as I dig.

Clara Olinda Osborne King and I are direct descendants of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is our ancestor. We are pilgrims and poets by nature.  This is in our DNA. We can know so much about ourselves if we study our ancestors and know their stories.

Some of us believe in reincarnation, the idea that spirits who leave before they are ready will find a way to return and re-live a life unfinished. I was my mam-maws best friend for many years as I grew up.  I taught her how to drive when she was 72 years old, and my granddad had passed on, when I was barely of driving age. I took my mam-maw to church every Sunday before I moved to New York, and then when I was home for visits.  I’d help her clasp her pearls for church. My aunts would tell me my grandmother called me her angel.  When my aunts would speak with me, they each one looked into my eyes intensely. They recognized something in me, something inquisitively familiar.

My dear great grandmother Clara died as stated on her death certificate of pulmonary tuberculosis and chronic myocardial infarction.  I have a mysterious scar on my lung, and all my life, it has puzzled and alarmed my doctors. I definitely have a fragile heart and I protect it in all I do. Her name was Clara. My name is Carla.

2 thoughts on “A Little Matter of My Ancestral Heart

  1. WOW! What a beautiful story of your life before & after you’re Mammaw’s death. You write beautifully. I will definitely read more of your writings.

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